Brains, Computers, Metaphor, Synecdoche, and People

Aeon has an interesting piece by psychologist Robert Epstein on why the brain is not a computer. In one sense, this is just a truism. Computers are machines made by human beings, whereas brains are animal organs that have evolved over a very long period of time; computers are made of metal chips, brains aren’t; computers aren’t neurochemical, brains are; brains can do lots of things that computers can’t (yet, anyway); and so on. This truism, though, depends on a rather imprecise, colloquial sense of the word ‘computer.’ More strictly speaking, a computer is just any device that computes, that is, “performs high-speed mathematical or logical operations or that assembles, stores, correlates, or otherwise processes information.”1 In this sense, many cognitive scientists believe that the brain is literally a computer. While it is of course not a ‘device’ designed by human beings, it nonetheless performs mathematical and logical operations and assembles, stores, correlates, and more generally processes information. Indeed, to many people, and not just cognitive scientists, it might seem that the truism is that the brain is a computer in this sense.

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Roderick Long (and others) on Hilary Putnam

Here’s a nice brief memorial to Hilary Putnam by Roderick Long, with a bonus link to Roderick’s review of Putnam’s Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays, from Reason Papers 28 (2006). Roderick has a real gift for writing these RIP notices, emphasizing the deceased’s achievements but not ignoring what might legitimately be criticized.

Here’s Martha Nussbaum in The Huffington Post.

Jane O’Grady in London’s Guardian.

The official notice from Harvard, with a link that goes to Putnam’s blog, Sardonic Comment.

Though it’s not online, I’ve always found the interview of Putnam in Giovanna Borradori’s The American Philosopher candid and interesting.

Feel free to add any particularly good ones in the combox.